Friday, November 19, 2010
Review: The Bad Lieutenant
It's no surprise that Martin Scorsese named The Bad Lieutenant as one of his favorite films of the 90s. It plays like a hybrid of Taxi Driver--in that it's a gritty New York City drama that focuses our attention on one man's madness--and Mean Streets--in that it deals with redemption, sacrifice, religion, and Harvey Keitel. Abel Ferrara has the same natural ability to capture the life the New York streets and the will to deliver scenes of extreme violence that make no apologies in their attempt to be iconic. According to Ferrara, "there's gotta be an event that you're gonna turn the camera on for".
The main thing that makes Abel Ferrara stand out is that he's a lot more depraved than Scorsese (for evidence of his disregard for limits or taste look no further than his first feature length film, the porno 9 Tales of a Wet Pussy). His subject matter may be no darker than that of Taxi Driver, but the final product feels even more dangerous. So for a movie about forgiveness, the first person you'll have to forgive is the director himself. His main offense is sexualizing and stylizing the rape of a nun. In a film that's all about realism, there was something about the close-ups and inserted shots of Jesus on the cross (all set to a hip-hop version of Kashmir) that felt out of place. I'm betting Ferrara was excited by his own transgression.
The movie's most memorable scene is even more disgusting, but here the purpose is to show just how sick Harvey Keitel's bad lieutenant is. The lieutenant stops two underaged girls for a broken tail light and threatens to get in touch with their father. He then offers an enticing proposal, "I do something for you. You do something for me." That something ends up being that the girls have to pretend to perform fellatio while Keitel masturbates and mutters obscenities; "You ever sucked guy's cock. Show me your mouth when you suck a guy's cock. Cummon, show me your mouth." The screenwriter Zoe Lünd originally just put in "humiliating sex scenes" that last until dawn, but Ferrara goes further while showing less; he's a true original when it comes to perversity.
All of this wouldn't be so scary if Harvey's lieutenant character didn't feel so real. Keitel is astounding in what must be one of the most intense screen performances of all time. Perhaps the most striking thing about the character is that it's almost impossible to find anything recognizable in him. He operates in his own moral sphere, in a continual drugged up haze, and for most of the movie, empathizing with him is out of the question. There seems to be nothing but hatred and brutality behind his cold glare. The lieutenant is laid bare before us (in one instance, literally; apparently it was Harvey's idea to get naked and wave his arms about) but all we see is ugliness.
That is, until the lieutenant asks for forgiveness. After getting deep into debt over bets on the world series and doing little else but smoke crack, sniff cocaine and inject heroin, our hero goes to the nun who was raped to offer an opportunity to avenge herself (his previous opinion was something like, "women are raped every day, why should we care just because they're wearing penguin suits"). There, he learns that she has already forgiven her attackers and has asked for god's help so that she can love them. The lieutenant is at first deeply confused, and then he cries, screams, and pleads with Jesus in a genuine attempt to become something other than what he is.
And here we are, asked to forgive the unforgivable. I've never seen such an unlikeable character used this way in a movie; the audience is challenged, plunged into territory that's morally ambiguous. And Keitel's character becomes a strange sort of icon; he represents humanity at it's lowest, but he still tries to do the right thing. In the end we see that his sacrifice is real and we understand his pain. And bravo to Abel Ferrara; that fact that the film itself feels complicit and reprehensible only helps to takes us further into the bad lieutenant's world.